Building Fluency With Gatekeeper Vocabulary

In this series of articles, we highlight research-based practices that are making a profound impact on student learning at 175 award-winning NCUST schools. We discovered 8 specific practices common in these schools. In this post, we shine a spotlight on the teaching practice of Building Fluency With Gatekeeper Vocabulary.

On the Minds of Educators Striving to Produce Equity and Excellence:

How can I get each and every one of my students to believe, “My teacher wants to help me be able to talk about and write about this topic as if I have been talking and writing about it all my life?

In high-performing schools, teachers help students develop fluency with the vocabulary that serves as a gatekeeper to understanding challenging academic content. The gates of understanding swing open when students are fluent users of essential vocabulary related to the objective teachers want students to learn. Conversely, the gates of understanding remain closed when students cannot converse using keywords and concepts. Students reach a deep level of understanding only when they have integrated key lesson vocabulary into their personal vocabularies.

Practice Guide Related to Building Fluency With Gatekeeper Vocabulary is a research-based resource to intentionally develop gatekeeper vocabulary. This tool can be utilized by teacher teams to plan and deliver lessons in a manner that will increase the likelihood of students understanding challenging concepts, attaining mastery of standards, and achieving academic success.

Sonia Escobar from Silver Wing Elementary discusses building fluency with gatekeeper vocabulary.


Teaching Practices from Americas Best Urban Schools

Authors of Teaching Practices From America’s Best Urban Schools (Johnson, Joseph F., Jr.; Cynthia L. Uline; Lynne G. Perez, 2019) write, In high-performing urban schools, students were more likely to achieve understanding and mastery, in part, because their teachers helped them develop and maintain fluency with key lesson vocabulary. Teachers did not assume that students would acquire fluency simply by hearing the teacher speak the word or the definition, looking up the word in the dictionary, or engaging in other busy work related to the new word. Instead, teachers understood that fluency would be developed only when students had many opportunities to practice speaking and writing the new vocabulary. To build students’ fluency, teachers deliberately pre-identified gatekeeper vocabulary associated with the lessons they taught. Teachers worked with their colleagues to identify which words were key to students’ ability to understand challenging concepts. Teachers introduced these new words in ways that quickly made them seem familiar. By responding to students’ cultural, social, and personal backgrounds, teachers were able to help students draw important connections. Additionally, teachers provided many rich opportunities for students to practice using gatekeeper vocabulary orally and in writing. By utilizing the new words frequently, students were able to integrate the new vocabulary into their everyday vocabulary. Finally, teachers provided students easy ways to capture, remember, and refer back to the vocabulary they had practiced and learned.”

Authors of When Black Students Excel (Johnson, Joseph F., Jr.; Cynthia L. Uline; Stanley J. Munro, Jr.) write “Teachers in high-performing schools engaged students in ways that helped them develop fluency with key lesson vocabulary (Johnson et al., 2019). They created opportunities for students to utilize key vocabulary in conversation with one another. For example, we observed second-grade students at Patrick Henry working together to prepare their entomology report. We listened to intermediate-grade students at Concourse Village discuss inferences about the article they read concerning White flight from Harlem following the recession of 1893. We listened to ninth-grade students at Maplewood Richmond Heights High discuss various hypotheses they were considering related to a science experiment. Teachers promoted high rates of student engagement in ways that helped students develop fluency with important lesson vocabulary.”

Leadership in America's Best Urban Schools

Authors of Leadership Practices in America’s Best Urban Schools (Johnson, Joseph F., Jr.; Cynthia L. Uline; Lynne G. Perez) write, ”In high-performing urban schools, teachers generated high levels of student engagement with rigorous academic content. To this end, teachers chose to help students engage with the vocabulary that was central to the content. This does not mean teachers simply identified and taught vocabulary words. More specifically, it means that teachers helped students become comfortable using the vocabulary associated with the lesson content. It means that teachers helped students integrate the lesson vocabulary into their speaking vocabulary. Helping students integrate lesson vocabulary into students’ spoken vocabulary was particularly important to the success of students who had never or rarely seen, heard, or spoken the vocabulary previously. To English learners, students from low-income homes, recent immigrants, students experiencing homelessness, or students whose families typically speak non-standard English dialects, the language experienced at school can be surprisingly foreign. In more typical schools, teachers act as if students will understand and utilize this vocabulary instantly. This may be as unrealistic as expecting adults to instantly understand and utilize vocabulary in an unfamiliar foreign language. In contrast, in high-performing schools, teachers provided students multiple opportunities to practice speaking new vocabulary, so that students could more easily engage in meaningful learning.”

Concourse Village Elementary School
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